By Karin Brulliard and Eric Rich
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, May 2, 2007
BAGHDAD, May 1 -- Witnesses testifying at a hearing here Tuesday said a senior U.S. Army officer accused of aiding the enemy kept top-secret papers at his base residence, allowed child detainees to make unmonitored calls on his cellphone and provided former president Saddam Hussein with Cuban cigars at taxpayer expense.
Though some witnesses defended his work, much of the testimony cast Lt. Col. William H. Steele, a reservist and former Anne Arundel County police officer, as a commander who flouted a wide range of military laws and was careless with highly sensitive materials. One witness said Steele confessed to the charges against him.
When Steele left his job at western Baghdad's Camp Cropper detention center for another position in Iraq, he took 18,000 electronic and printed classified documents, witnesses testified. Investigators who searched his residence in February found some in a briefcase, said Special Agent Thomas Barnes, a senior military fraud investigator.
"I've never seen that amount of classified material not properly stored and not properly labeled and not properly protected," Barnes said. "I believe that if those documents were compromised, it could have been devastating."
Steele, 51, who oversaw a compound holding important detainees, including Hussein, also told interrogators that he considered himself a "humanitarian and he felt compelled to make [detainees'] lives better," Special Agent John Nocella testified.
Like the Abu Ghraib scandal, the allegations against Steele have raised questions about the behavior of military jailers in Iraq. But one of the key questions about Steele seemed to be whether he was treating detainees far too well, in violation of military law.
Steele has been charged with nine violations, including fraternizing with the daughter of a detainee, mishandling classified information and government funds, having an inappropriate relationship with an interpreter and possessing pornography.
The hearing, which ended Tuesday, amounted to a formal investigation. The presiding officer will issue a recommendation as to whether Steele should face court-martial. While the charge of aiding the enemy can be a capital offense, a military court liaison said Steele would be unlikely to face such punishment if convicted.
Steele worked as a police officer in Anne Arundel County from 1979 to 1990. He lived in Florida for a time and then settled in Virginia's Prince George County.
In Florida, Steele was charged in 1993 with aggravated child abuse in connection with the alleged mistreatment of a stepson, 11. According to an arrest affidavit filed in court, Steele struck the boy for failing to complete homework and chores, deprived him of food and called him "worthless."
Steele was also charged with resisting arrest when deputies sought to take him into custody Nov. 1, 1993, in connection with the alleged abuse. Prosecutors dropped both charges, in part because of concern about requiring the child to testify. In a subsequent proceeding in family court, Steele and his wife lost custody of the child, according to a source with knowledge of the proceeding.
In Prince George County, Steele was charged with two misdemeanor offenses after a dispute over the construction of a shed in 2003. Complainant Bachir Jamil, a contractor, said in court papers that Steele menaced him, saying, "You better get out of here or I'll blow your head off," and that Steele accused him of working for al-Qaeda.
Jamil, who was born in Lebanon and has lived in the United States for 53 years, said in an interview that Steele bragged about being a "big guy in the Army."
Steele was convicted, in District Court, on one count of threatening bodily harm. He appealed to Circuit Court, where a judge found evidence sufficient to support the conviction but agreed to dismiss the charge, and later did so, after Steele completed anger management therapy, court records show.
Steele's attorney in the case, Peter Eliades, said Steele, then a major, was deeply concerned that a misdemeanor conviction might affect his security clearance. Eliades said Steele's rigidity might have harmed his cause when he represented himself in District Court. "He just struck me as a fellow who wanted it just so, and he wasn't willing to back down," Eliades said.
All Army officers, whether from the regular Army or the Reserve, undergo a background check, said Lt. Col. William Nutter, a spokesman for the Army Reserve.
While none of the current charges appears to be related to violent acts, Brig. Gen. Kevin McBride, who oversaw detainee facilities in Iraq during Steele's tenure at Camp Cropper, testified that Steele once was reprimanded for "intimidating tower guards with a service pistol."
Steele's unit ended its mission at Camp Cropper in October. He asked to stay in Iraq and was transferred to a Military Police unit at another Baghdad base.
Nocella said he and another investigator questioned Steele about the charges Feb. 22. During the interrogation, Nocella testified, Steele said he had allowed three juvenile detainees to use his cellphone to call their parents in violation of the prison's approved system of strictly monitored phone calls. Nocella said he did not know if Steele allowed other detainees to use his cellphone.
Nocella said Steele also said that he gave his number to family members of detainees and that only one -- the daughter of a prisoner -- ever called. Steele said he then began e-mailing regularly with the daughter and later gave her an "expensive" gift that included architecture software, Nocella said. Nocella said that he also questioned the daughter and that she said her relationship with Steele was not personal.
The next morning, Nocella said, Steele said he wanted a lawyer. He came back that afternoon and said he was guilty of the accusations against him and knew he would lose his commission.
Among the most discussed and disputed pieces of evidence Tuesday were the Cuban cigars. McBride said they were being purchased for Hussein before Steele's tenure at Camp Cropper.
Maj. Gen. John D. Gardner, deputy commander of detainee operations in Iraq, testified that he had given Steele glowing reviews. But while "high-value" detainees might get some special privileges, he said, cigars were unlikely to be among them.
Rich reported from Largo, Md. Staff writer Thomas E. Ricks and staff researcher Meg Smith in Washington contributed to this report.